Jean-Marie Le Pen and the French Elections

France: Uncertain Future

Jean-Marie Le Pen
Jean-Marie Le Pen's strong showing in the first round of French elections dealt a blow to the French political scene (Photo: AFP, January 1998). 

In the second round of the French presidential elections on May 5, incumbent President Jacques Chirac, representing the center-right RPR party, defeated far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen by a margin of 82.21 percent to 17.79 percent.

It was the most overwhelming electoral victory in the history of France. But it is too early to say the political crisis has passed. One in six French citizens voted for Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-European Union program—the most stunning result of any far-right candidate in a major Western European country since the end of World War II.

The national mood the day after the first round of the presidential election was summed up by Serge July, editor of Libération (April 22): “France is a disoriented, panic-stricken country that is scared of its own shadow and finds it hard to turn toward the future.”

Despite Chirac’s victory, Le Figaro (May 6) was not celebrating: “Though the president of the republic yesterday got the vote of four out of five voters, rarely has national cohesion seemed so weak, rarely has the future of the country seemed so uncertain.” Le Monde (May 6) called it a “trompe-l’oeil triumph,” noting the massive impact of left-wing voters. In order to stop Le Pen, they “held their noses, donned their rubber gloves, and voted for Chirac,” said French socialist Minister Martine Aubry. “Better the crook than the fascist” became a popular slogan. (Chirac has been implicated in political corruption inquiries.) This is hardly a ringing endorsement.

The two weeks leading up to the second-round election witnessed massive anti-Le Pen protests all across France. The frenzy culminated in a May Day march of a million and a half people that “will go down in the pages of history,” commented La Marseillaise (May 6).

France has not mobilized in the last few weeks simply to save face. The expectations for change are enormous. “In order to eradicate the tumor of Lepenisme, tomorrow’s government must go to the heart of our problems, rather than avoiding them,” editorialized Jacques Julliard in Le Nouvel Observateur (May 9), while La Croix (May 8) asserted that it was up to Chirac to “make a repetition of April 21 [the first round of the presidential elections] impossible.”

There are also many calls for a reform of the institutions of the Fifth Republic or even the creation of a Sixth Republic. The constitution allows the two most important offices to be held by leaders from opposing parties—as has been the case in the past five years with conservative President Chirac and socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. During that time, Chirac was practically reduced to the status of a figurehead.

The next few months, however, will show how far Chirac  can rise to the task he faces and if he is up to the challenge: “Chirac has a rendezvous with history,” claimed Catherine Pégard in Le Point (May 7), evoking the role of Charles de Gaulle in defending France from an earlier right-wing challenge.